'Aballay' Director Fernando Spiner Talks About His 'Gaucho Western' Oscar Hopeful

The existential revenge tale is set in Argentine's 19th century wild west.

BUENOS AIRES - Aballay, Argentine's foreign language Oscar candidate, is set in the 19th century Argentine in the country's Amaicha Valley in the rural Tucuman province. It's a gaucho western revenge tale. Ten years after gaucho bandits murdered his father in front of him, Julian (Nazareno Casero), returns to claim blood for blood. But the brutal killing also transformed gang leader Aballay (Pablo Cedron). When Julian finds him, Aballay has withdrawn from the world and lives like a saint in the mountains. To stay closer to god, he never dismounts his horse.

Argentine filmmaker Fernando Spiner had been wanting to make a film version of this existential gaucho tale ever since he read Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto’s original short story back when he was a film student at Rome’s Cinecitta in the early 80s.

“It was perfect for what I wanted to do: a gaucho western," he recalls. From the start, Spiner could see how the traditional gaucho tale could be filtered through the lens of the classic western, giving a modern take on traditional stereotypes. "The topics of the western are also those of Argentine history," he explains. "This is also about tapping into a genuine piece of our own history."

But it took 20 years for Spiner to build a reputation with films such as Sleepwalker and Goodbye Dear Moon and cobble together the money to make Aballay. The greenlight finally came when Spiner won funds in a contest from the Argentine Film Institute.

Spiner began prepping for the shoot in Tucuman province. But soon ran into problems.

"Right before shooting the money we were expecting from the Tucuman provincial government fell through," he says. "We had scheduled a nine-week shoot and we had to reduce it to six weeks. It was very hard."  

It helped, though, that Spiner got the native Amaicha people on board from the start. They helped with production logistics, Spiner and his team helped them in their disputes with the local government.  

“We built a true bond with them," Spiner says. "They have been there for hundreds of years; they have ownership papers from the 18th century. We hired them as actors, and rented their horses. We interceded on their behalf before the state government and cleared roads they had demanded for years, so they took us to some secret locations. And they were constantly blessing the shoot before the Pachamama (Mother Earth). It was a very spiritual shoot."

With the 2009 precedent of Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret In Their Eyes taking the Oscar back to Argentina, Aballay's director is confident about his film’s chances.

“It has all the elements of the great classic American cinema,” he says. “It’s an adventure, in a place that is very far away from American culture and a main character who carries very local features yet framed within the topics of the genre Americans invented, while staying true to Argentine history. It’s an adventure through a trip to the past in an unknown culture.”

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